EASTERN ONTARIO: Growing, packaging, processing, marketing ancient grains a winning strategy for Winchester farm

Farmers Forum - Oct 19, 2020 - By Connor Lynch

“It was my answer to Uncle Ben’s,” says Spruit. Now she gets asked to talk to farmers around the world on how to find new opportunities in old grains.photo: Courtesy Shelley Spruit

WINCHESTER — When bigger is seen as better, going against the grain to focus on locally-grown ancient grains might seem at best misguided.

But Against the Grains at Winchester has done just that and built a thriving business growing, processing, packaging and marketing ancient grains.
Shelley Spruit, who farms 250 acres with her husband Tony is a grain farmer but also a baker and a chef. They’ve been farming together for over three decades, getting their start in pig farming before transitioning to a crop farm. Spruit, who’s from what’s now Barrhaven in the Ottawa-area and is a trained chef, opened her own banquet hall, which she ran for 11 years.

About six years ago, after selling the banquet hall, Spruit started hearing about the gluten-free trend. It got her curious about grains other than your bog-standard corn or soybeans, and different species within those alternative grains as well. In a related way, local was becoming a buzzword. Spruit had been local before it was cool but as it started becoming a broader conversation she noticed something. “People were talking about local meat, veggies, but nobody (was) talking about local grains.”

It didn’t take long to grow a new business. “Three years ago, we had six products,” she said. “Now, altogether, we have 22 on our website.” The farm sells retail and wholesale, does some of its own processing, markets to chefs and restaurants (primarily in Toronto, anywhere from 20 to 25 pre-COVID-19) and even sells grain to other companies to use for their own private labels.

Pulling off an operation like this wasn’t for an inexperienced hobbyist. (“There’s a) huge amount of upfront cost for infrastructure. Grains have to be stored properly and mills are few and far between.” Some mills want as much as five tonnes at a time, she said, but the first crop of a heritage grain might only yield a half-tonne.

The business’ bread-and-butter has shifted gears with COVID-19. Before the pandemic, wholesalers and small manufacturers were their biggest buyers. Now it’s a lot more direct to consumer or closer-to, adding local grains to Community-Supported Agriculture produce boxes and introducing products to local stores looking for local products.

Spruit’s background with both farming and as a professional chef has helped her see both sides and speak both languages, a boon for a business rooted in farm country but marketing to cities.

The processing and value-added parts of the business are by far the most difficult, Spruit said. “There are very few options for milling, flaking, polishing, roasting, sprouting. So every step is like re-creating the wheel. We have to ship or have had to set up our own processing to make it financially feasible.”

Growing is the easy part, she said. “Getting the grains ready and in useable form for the client is the big challenge.”

The farm also participates in and advocates for participatory plant breeding, something Spruit herself is passionate about. She wrote a report for not-for-profit Nuffield Canada as part of its ag scholarship program earlier this year. A Nuffield scholar, Spruit argued that the on-farm breeding of grains, particularly ancient varieties such as hers, are a “highly relevant and necessity-driven response to weather challenges,” particularly in light of a changing climate, she argued in her report. “Given unpredictable weather patterns, self-replicating seed stock contributes to greater seed adaptability and plant resilience within the Canadian food system.”

It’s all part of making sure farms remain viable businesses for farmers, she said. “We do what we do because we feel that seed sovereignty, developing markets outside of commodities, is going to be important going forward. With what’s going on, it’s not good to have all your eggs in one basket.”